Why White Supremacists Identify With Rhodesia
The defunct colonial state serves as a ‘lost cause’ myth like the Confederacy
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old shooter who terrorized a community and murdered nine people at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, has admitted to his crimes.
Some of the first images we saw of him made it explicitly clear why he did it.
In a photo posted to Facebook, Dylann stood in a swamp glaring at the camera. On his jacket were the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, two white supremacist regimes — the latter which fought a brutal and losing war in the 1960s and 1970s.
Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, has figured highly among white supremacists since. Situated in present-day Zimbabwe, Rhodesia broke from the United Kingdom — its colonial patron — in 1965 after Britain refused to recognize white minority rule.
Almost immediately, Rhodesia descended into a war fought between the regime and several black resistance movements which often fought each other. Black political leaders were arrested and jailed en masse. The regime routinely employed torture methods including electric shocks and “skull bashing” to obtain information from real or suspected political activists.
The regime collapsed in 1979. But it’s lived on as myth, and racist groups have seized on its symbolism and flag as a way to depict whites — who comprised 3.72 percent of Rhodesia’s 1960 population but ruled it with an iron fist — as the underdogs.
The attraction to Rhodesia also contains a longing for what might have been had the regime survived.
In this sense, it functions as a “lost cause” similar to the Confederacy, which Roof endorsed in a vanity license plate on his car. In South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag still prominently flies in front of the State House — and calls for its removal have picked up momentum following the Charleston attack.
But the reality of Rhodesia was quite different from the myths — and it’s worth deconstructing them.
White supremacists use Rhodesia to contrast with autocratic Zimbabwe, ruled by former resistance leader and Hitler-admirer Robert Mugabe. This serves as warning against giving up power. It argues — you wouldn’t want Mugabe, would you?
But the argument for Rhodesia being a better alternative never held much water. Aside from the obvious one — that the argument endorses a white supremacist government — is that Mugabe was never destined to lead Zimbabwe.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Mugabe took control of ZANU and its military wing ZANLA after the group’s leader, Herbert Chitepo, died when assassins blew up his Volkswagen Beetle. ZANU had emerged as the strongest rebel faction after its competitor, ZAPU, launched a failed conventional offensive into Rhodesia from its bases in Mozambique in the late 1960s.
By this point, the Rhodesian regime was on the defensive, having fought a hopeless counter-insurgency war for years. To cut off the civilian population from the rebels, the regime had forcibly moved hundreds of thousands of blacks into “protected villages” behind barbed wire, Paul Moorcraft and Peter McLaughlin recounted in The Rhodesian War — A Military History.
“Although militarily effective, it was a propaganda gift to the insurgents,” Moorcraft and McLaughlin described. “So were the ‘no-go areas’ and ‘free-fire’ zones along the Mozambique border. As the curfews were extended, the inevitable increase in civilian deaths made guerrilla recruitment easier.”
Rebel groups such as ZANU/ZANLA radicalized. “Control of the party passed inexorably into the hands of the more radical party members, and Mugabe emerged in 1978 as the clear and publicly acknowledged leader and as commander-in-chief of ZANLA,” the authors noted.
But had the government abandoned white rule in 1965 or sooner instead of 1979 — and before Mugabe was well-entrenched at the top of the ZANU hierarchy — future Zimbabwe may never have had him as president. The country may have had a president Joshua Nkomo, Edgar Tekere or Ndabaningi Sithole instead.
Another myth is that Rhodesia was a “white nation” with native Rhodesian whites fighting a communist invasion. In fact, half the white population in the 1970s were settlers who immigrated after independence from Britain — and many were willing to move elsewhere.
The Rhodesian regime considered this one of its biggest weaknesses, and even took steps to halt white emigration, such as restricting the amount of property and cash whites could transfer out of the country. And while China backed ZANU, and the Soviet Union backed ZAPU, the rebel groups’ own propaganda would never have been effective had elements of it not resonated with the country’s black population.
As Moorcraft and McLaughlin described, Rhodesian white elites never understood that. Racism blinded them, and most importantly functioned as a self-serving justification that blacks were incapable of governance — and thus political organization. It was the responsibility for whites, they believed, to paternalistically rule a country that was 96 percent black.
The resistance groups thought very differently, and set about organizing them. Obviously the whites were in for a rude shock.
Another myth concerns the Rhodesian military’s tactical prowess — popularized in the West through mercenary recruiting ads in Soldier of Fortune magazine.
Military schools have studied Rhodesian light infantry tactics ever since. Modern bomb-protected armored vehicles with sloped underbellies owe heavily to the Rhodesian army. But while at times tactically ingenious, the Rhodesians found themselves fighting an enemy that refused to play the same game.
The rebels targeted the regime where it was weakest, such as propaganda and economic warfare. One of the biggest rebel victories was a 1978 rocket attack on Rhodesia’s strategic oil reserve. The rockets hit the fuel tanks in Salisbury, today Harare, wiping out the reserve in a single blow. Rhodesia capitulated a few months later.
“Indeed, the military performance of the guerrillas, particularly in the early part of the war, was appalling,” Moorcraft and McLaughlin noted. “Both sides, however, learned from their mistakes. In the end the Rhodesians often met fierce resistance and came to repent their initial underestimation of the enemy.”
Early rebel offensives failed, resulting in heavy casualties for the militant groups and light casualties for the regime. These lulled the white-ruled government into a sense of complacency — and set the stage for its eventual defeat.